Spend a weekend in Nebraska’s north-central Sandhills, one of the nation's best birding sites and home to impressive national grasslands, national forests and state parks.

By Greg Philby
Sandhill cranes, Rowe Sanctuary

Day One: Grand Island

Rise early and wander deep into the awakening prairie and marshes of the Platte River valley, one of 
the nation's best birding sites and migratory home of the flamboyant Sandhill crane (nebraskaflyway.com). As a spring day begins, hundreds of species of waterfowl and birds come to honking, trilling life.

Sandhill cranes, Rowe Sanctuary

Sandhill cranes, Rowe Sactuary, Gibbon. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

Another treat: the architecturally geometric Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (stuhrmuseum.org), with its 200 surrounding acres of living history. Downtown Grand Island blends modern art galleries and boutiques with a cornerstone 1930s Art Deco Grand Theatre (grandmovietheatre.com).

Day Two: Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands

Broaden the landscape experience in this region featuring three national grasslands and two national forests. Near Halsey,
 hiking trails thread deep into the Bessey Recreation Complex (visitnebraska.com), and the signature Scott Lookout Tower (fs.usda.gov) offers panoramic views. Subtler attractions await, too, such as the shallow, slow-wandering Middle Loup River.

A Walk in the Park

Smith Falls State Park Streams of silver cascade 70 feet down a stony cliff. Spray mists the air above a viewing deck. Smith Falls, Nebraska's highest waterfall, highlights this park 14 miles east of Valentine, but visitors also come for kayaking, tubing and exploring the Niobrara, a national scenic river (outdoornebraska.gov).

Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska National Forest. Photo courtesy of Nebraskaland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Prairie chickens, once nearly extinct, open orange throats and produce a distinct ooh-loo-loo sound during spring mating season. Shaggy bison turn and stare. This 19,000-acre north-central tract, a former frontier military fort, became a preserve in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt set it aside to protect Great Plains plants and animals (visitnebraska.com).

Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.

Grand Dining In Grand Island, savor Italian creations at Napoli's Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar. For a cultural switch, try creative sushi rolls at Wasabi Bistro (wasabibistrous.com/menu).

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